Vestibular Disease Causing Ataxia in Cats: MISDIAGNOSED BY VETS

I believe this syndrome (vestibular disease) is so poorly diagnosed that I really feel the need to educate. I am amazed at how many vets don’t know and misdiagnose this.

My first experience with this was with my very old dog. It emulates a stroke and so many people put their pets down because of that.

It, particularly, targets cats and dogs over 12 years of age. It is not a stroke but a vestibular condition that causes ataxia, nausea and sometimes vomiting, and fear (for animal and caretaker).

Even without any treatment (vets give antibiotics just for the heck of it). It will resolve in about 2 weeks. But, a head tilt will persist for life. It may even recur.

I have 2 cats right now that suffered from this. They are fine, but the head tilt is evident.

Cat head tilt - vestibular disorder disease. This is a photo of Flynn a one-time stray cat. Photo by the author of the <a href="" target="_blank"></a> website

Cat head tilt – vestibular disorder disease. This is a photo of Flynn a one-time stray cat. Photo by the author of the website

I met a man about a year ago going into Banfield Animal Animal Clinic for a follow-up visit for his dog. It was evident to me that the dog had vestibular ataxia, and the human said he had never heard of it and that the vet was treating him for a possible inner ear infection. I was dumbfounded.

I want to beg cat humans not to be quick to put their cats down because they think they have had a steak. This is not spinal related or “wobbly kitten syndrome”. My dog lived 5 years beyond this and my 2 cats are thriving after 3 and 4 years.

Note: I don’t know the author of this post.

Additional stuff from Michael. This is a page on vestibular disorder:

And this is a page on ataxia (a lack of coordination):

I, myself, have suffered from vestibular disorder. I’m sure that many people have had this condition. In my case it was caused by a bacterial infection in my sinuses (which had been caused by a cold) and the infection spread to my inner ear where there is the vestibular system, which is used for balance.

It was very disconcerting for me because it made me feel very sick and that feeling made me feel ill and worried. It is useful to me to have suffered this condition for a short time (it only lasted about 4 hours) because it made me understand how uncomfortable it is. It does, as Dee states, cause a sense of fear and anxiety in the sufferer. People should be aware of it because, as we know, it is difficult for us to understand how a cat is feeling when ill.

I presume the continuing head tilt is because the cat’s orientation is messed up. I wonder whether the cat continues to feel some discomfort or anxiety because of it. Can cat vestibular disorder cause inappropriate elimination sometimes?

Additional external reference:

Vestibular disease in cats (opens new tab or window)

A Winn Foundation info. sheet on vestibular disease:

Cat vestibular disease

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Vestibular Disease Causing Ataxia in Cats: MISDIAGNOSED BY VETS — 25 Comments

  1. Thank you Dee, I hadn’t heard of this in relation to cats before and it’s sad to think that someone could have their cat PTS when a few weeks down the line things would be very much improved. Is it random Dee, I was wondering because of you having two cats with it, is it an infection that can be spread of just a co-incidence. Michael I bet that was a stressful few hours, glad you didn’t end up with a head tilt 😉

    • It’s said to be just a phenomenon of unknown cause.
      The nerves of the inner ear become impaired, not infected.
      If I think way, way back I think I have had others (not a lot) with the same head tilt but thought it was cute and quirky. I never saw its beginnings.
      But, from the beginning of it as I saw in my dog and 2 cats, it was terrifying for me but worse for them. The first 2-3 days were terrible with them trying to stand, falling over, vomiting, and eyes sort of looking like they’re unable to focus before it started resolving.
      My dog had 2 more recurrences, but I was better at coping and helping him with comfort since I knew what it was.

      • Oh yes I can imagine you were desperately worried, it sounds so awful and must have been really distressing to see your cats and dog suffering like that, when I think I’ve heard of people saying their cat or dog has had a stroke and had to be PTS, and it probably,or maybe, wasn’t a stroke at all. I hope never to witness this horrible affliction but if it did happen this knowledge could be invaluable in saving a cat’s life.

    • Not sure about Michael, Babz. Maybe we need to go back and take a closer look at some of his videos to see if he has a head tilt. LOL!

  2. i also havent hearld of this before. THe cats face looks very sad makes me sad:( Its great the cat at least went back to the lady who have looked after her/him. I also think its good as makes awareness of this sort of thing. Poor baby.

  3. i also havent hearld of this before. THe cats face looks very sad makes me sad:( Its great the cat at least went back to the lady who have looked after her/him.

  4. Wow Dee – I never heard of this. How awful that people are told the wrong thing and then decide to kill the cat. Perhaps in this case the genuine intention is euthanasia but if the cat isn’t dying then it’s still killing.

    Regardless – it must be hard for them – watching the video the cat looked quite disoriented – I guess he was in a strange room so he was anyway very nervous and so moving around alot.

    The cat Flynn in the pic is beautiful. I just read about him – he was around as a stray and then one day didn’t show up for about 2 or 3 days and when he came back he had the head tilt. At this point the lady took him inside and he apparently was very happy for the home and security and didn’t even really try to escape or anything. Presumably a cat with this condition must feel very vulnerable. It must be quite hard for a normally agile creature to suddenly lose all that ability. In the wild it would mean certain death I would assume.

    • When I visited A1 Savannahs, one of their cats had a head tilt just like this. He was active but his head tilted in the same way, all the time. I asked about it and was told, in so many words, that it did not affect his ability to breed. The worrying thing for me is that people do not understand what the cat feels like when he has a head tilt like this. Because everything looks all right I don’t think we can issue that the cat feels all right. However, it should not be misdiagnosed and in no way is it a justification to euthanise a cat.

      • Only a guess, but I have a feeling that the head tilt is useful and that holding their head upright would induce the dizziness and unbalance again.

        • Fortunately there are medications avaiable that can help relieve the dizziness while the cat is healing.

          Dr. Hush Puppy’s awesome vets at a really fine specialty facility suggested that we give him this medicine while he is getting better and until the vestibular situation abates sufficiently.

          • Good to know, Jo. None were prescribed, except an offer of narcotic-based drugs that I refused, for my poor old dog and my 2 cats. I, also, refused Benadryl, Antivert types, and hospitalization that would cause them even more fear.
            They recovered, nonetheless.
            We just kept the lights on, comforted one another, and went through the storm together.

            • Thanks Dee,

              I am glad your storm is over. We are giving Puppy 1/2 tab of Meclizine- basically similar to Dramamine. It has helped him to feel more balanced and he is sitting up in his cage straight but the head tilt is there but much less than a few days ago. I don’t care that much about the tilt- I just want him to be able to walk around without falling down. He is a bit more settled on his feet- I think the ear antibiotics are doing a great job for him in healing that infection. Once that is resolved he should be more steady and have no more pain.

            • Sandra it is Meclizine. It is an over the counter medication and the recommended dose is 1/2 a pill once a day. We crush it and add a couple of MLS of warm water to it and flush it into the tube. It really makes him a lot more steady on his feet.

              • Sandra,

                The other meds he is getting is Idoxuridine drops 4x a day for his eye (anti-viral) an anti-viral pill- forget the name right now- and prednisilone once a day- with a slow reduction over two weeks in dosage- also getting an ear medication mixed with baytril once a day for his left ear. We know that prednisilone shouldn’t be given to a cat that may harbor herpes- but with the anti-viral drugs on board my vet thinks that for the short time he will be on it it shouldn’t present a problem. It’s the bigger picture that she is interested in to get him well.

                • Not really a bad combo, Jo, if for a short time only. I have to admit that Baytril scares me because it can cause blindness; but, in the short term, it may be OK.

                  • Yeh I was scared too and asked my vet about it. But this is such a small amount given in the ear not in the tube- so I think he will be ok until the infection resolves. Who knows what med will be prescribed based on the culture- the results we expect in a few days. It may be totally something different than baytril mixed with octic.

  5. A very interesting and useful article to share, thank you Dee.
    I hope that man and his dog you met mentioned what you had said, to his vet.
    I think most vets will listen to clients although some (like some doctors) don’t like to be questioned as to their knowledge, but we should always do that if we feel uneasy about a diagnosis or treatment.

    • I was very much surprised because Banfield is very well respected and ahead of most in state of the art veterinary medicine.

      • Actually Dee, that vet might have been right on the money. We are now dealing with a vestibular incident with Dr. Hush Puppy. He has practically no coordiation on his left side at all and has a very distinct head tilt to the left.

        My wonderful vet suspected that it could be an middle ear infection- a very serious one, but to rule out any tumors that also could cause this condition she suggested an MRI for our cat. We had this done and thank God, there were no signs of any brain, or nasal polyps or tumors and we could rule out nasal lymphoma as well. A specialist made a tiny puncture of his ear drum (it will heal and his hearing will be fine) and took a culture of the plentiful gunk that she found there. We are waiting for the results in a few days.

        He will be put on the right antibiotics to treat this condition. So while I am not a Banfield fan for many reasons-mostly because they still declaw cats- this vet was really smart to suspect that infection- but probably should have also referred the cat for an MRI or CT scan.

        Very often there is abolutely no apparent cause for vestibular issues, and if this is the case it is called idiopathic vestibular disease. NOT fun for the cat or the guardian- it is painful to watch a kitty struggling. I do hope that Dr. Hush Puppy’s head tilt will resolve but sadly I am not counting on it.

        • Thanks, Jo.
          I feel confident that Puppy will rally from the vestibular disease. It usually takes 2-3 weeks; but, the head tilt will persist, I’m afraid.
          I have a cat right now with the tilt. It’s, actually, sort of cute. She has no problem with it at all.

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